Basic Winning Basketball Strategies

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

Introduction

The coach's place on the bench can be rather uncomfortable. Aside from the hardness of the seating and the proximity of large, sweaty people, you may also be subjected to burning ears and icy stares from parents and fans who expect you to change a disappointing game into one that favors their players. Maybe the end of the game is at hand and all the players' eyes turn to you for a winning answer. What are you going to say?

New coaches are wise to ask about game strategy. There is a lot to learn. Coaches that have been around awhile and become comfortable in their style should also rethink their strategic plans if their teams are struggling. Coaches that know how to effectively adapt and deploy their team's collective skills will find success. Teams of such coaches are rarely beaten by much, and any team that underestimates them will likely pay for it. Masters of strategy can do a lot with a little and know that there is no more rewarding way to win than to prevail as the underdog. As Pete Carrill, former Princeton coach put it so well in the title of his book, "The Smart Take from the Strong".

The point of this article is to help a new coach develop an effective game strategy. There is no one best way to win basketball games, but there may be one best way to manage your particular team. Hopefully there are some ideas here that will help you recognize your team's potential and make the most of it.

Important Tip

Before game strategy can be discussed, the following point must be made:

Understand that the game is played, won or lost by the players, not the coach. Do not be deceived on this point. It's what players do that matters, not what the coach teaches, says or does. To believe you have control over the players, the refs or the game is a fallacy. If you accept full responsibility for game outcomes, then expect to lay awake nights blaming yourself because things went wrong. That's ridiculous. I know, because I've done it that way. 

The game is really a series of decisions made by the players and their ability to execute upon those decisions. Build your coaching strategy on that premise and you'll be able to sleep better at night. The coach only has control over who is making those decisions on the floor. After that, it is only possible to influence what the players decide to do. That influence is built primarily through preparation. The coaching decisions on what the team practices and how they practice have a much bigger impact on game performance than coaching decisions made at game time. Once the game starts, the coach can strategize to the moon, but the game will be determined by what the players are able to do and what they decide to do.

Now that you realize that the players have the power to prevail, not you, its time to build a winning game strategy. What can you say and do to help them win? Every coach has something special to offer and so do you. Your personality will affect your choice of strategy. Hopefully your personality will fit well with the character and nature of your team.

The subsequent sections break the game down into segments that can be covered in practice, discussed as a group or just thought about during a quiet moment.

Let's Get Started

While the chapters in this article are intended to build upon one another, you may use the links below to jump to an interesting subject.

Where to Start - It usually doesn't pay to just emulate a successful coach. You need to bring out your unique personal qualities and knowledge to do your best.

Preparation - One cannot implement strategy without resources. Help your players develop essential individual and team skills needed to win basketball games. Be sure they are in shape to play!

Managing Resources - Strategy really boils down to how to use your resources. There are at least seven resources you should understand and draw upon at game time.

Predictable, Recurring Events - While most of basketball is a dynamic, fluid process, there are four events that repeatedly occur in every basketball game. Why not master these situations to your best advantage?

Basic Winning Strategies - Many coaches take years to develop a strategy built on years and years of empirical experience as a player, coach and fan. A long history in the game of basketball may teach what one should've done in a given game situation, but the rules of human conflict and engagement have already been worked out over the past few thousand years. Examine some basic precepts of competition. Take the high-level approach and you will see that the game of basketball can be as simple as it is fun.

Where to Start

First, let's examine some fundamentally different approaches coaches use to build winning teams.

Look to the Stars - One way to win is to recruit the best kids in the league to play on your team. In fairness, all coaches want good athletes, but some coaches will put 80% of their efforts into attaining and pacifying premier players (and their parents) and then pretty much let the kids play their way through the season. Generally, they'll win by large margins all season. While its true that great athletes want to play with other great athletes, it's more true that a competitive environment is best for all athletes. I have seen cases where star-studded teams degrade over the season to the point where they lose to less talented teams. In the extreme case, followers of this approach are more interesting in winning than developing players and may flounder if required to coach novice players. On the other hand, they may excel at managing top level players that require a high profile coaching style.

Fun with Phonics - Some coaches are true believers in fundamental skills. They will place 80% of their effort into drills trying to get the players to do the smallest things correctly. The kids never scrimmage in practice. Obviously, they finish their season strong on skills even though their win/loss record is so - so. I like watching this kind of coach run practice. I have seen some practices that are essentially a coaching clinic. Lots of information is presented, explained and demonstrated. Oddly, the coaches I am thinking of post moderate records. The kids become well - grounded and are sure to please their next coach, but there is still something lacking at the games. This is puzzling because the coaches talk about strategy and have a wide knowledge of college teams and their game plans. 

Motivators R Us - some coaches are light on technique and content, but they are real heavy on emotion. They excel on working their players into a lather and then turning them loose on the opponent. They get the best possible efforts from their kids. They like players that can rise to the occasion and make big plays. The game is a series of emotional swells and eddies and can be very exciting. There are situations where this is the most effective coaching style. If the team is mature and skilled, they may need (and even thrive) on the hype. Another case is where there is little if any opportunity to practice and earn solid skills. In these cases, teams must make the most with what they have. Sometimes teams that are pretty weak fundamentally can still be successful because they strive so hard and have a knack for making clutch plays despite the odds against them. This style isn't apt to work well with young, inexperienced players that need lots of information and an environment conducive to learning new skills.

One Good Recipe - If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Often coaches get comfortable with a style of basketball that they can teach well and that provides good results. There is nothing wrong with that as long as the team matches the coach. In some venues, the coach can recruit players to fit the game plan. That way, the plan never changes. But, what if you coach in an environment where the players change every year? One season you're tall and slow, the next you're short and fast. The third year you are short AND slow. The same game plan isn't going to pay year in and year out. While a coach should teach what he or she knows best, the plan must fit the team.

Mastermind - Another coaching style is the mastermind. This coach knows a lot of basketball stuff. There is a counter for every defense and a defense for every counter. The defensive plan may change after every basket and signals flashed from numbered cards or coded verbal messages. The trick to doing anything well on the basketball court, though, is for the players to thoroughly understand what they are doing. The mastermind coach should budget time carefully to make sure the team skills are developed well enough to be useful. A couple well-run plays will out perform a dozen poorly run plays. If the mastermind has enough time to teach his storehouse and has the players to handle all the options, they may be a difficult team to figure out.

Where do you fit in among these coaching styles? You're probably some of each. But, chances are, you are resemble one style more than the others. You may have a unique style all of your own, and that's great. The point is that it's important to understand who you are. Do not make the mistake of copying another coach's style. If you try to be great motivator when you're not, you just look silly and lose credibility with the kids. Be yourself. You will be able to get your points across as long as the kids believe that you are absolutely sincere. If you are already a motivator, stay with your strength. Don't copy the mastermind because you'll never catch up with him.

Are you a risk taker? Do you initiate the action or react to it? A case in point: you have your team set up where most of your big people are on the floor. The opposing coach subs in two speedy guards. Do you 1) sub in two of your speedy guards to match up? 2) Keep the same players on the floor and press your advantage with an inside game? There isn't a correct answer necessarily. But once you look at yourself in this light, you'll better recognize how opposing coaches react to the game. The more you know, the more predictable the game becomes.

An excellent way to better understand yourself is to articulate your coaching philosophy. Once you have it on paper, you can look at it objectively and maybe reconsider a position or two. Your philosophy will lay the foundation for building your strategies. 

Just as you must know yourself, you must know your players. You must understand their physical limitations and potential. How do they each act under stress? Who looks for leadership opportunities? Who can be trusted to follow the plan? Besides these basic character traits, the coach needs to pay attention to the daily variables. Who just broke up with a boyfriend? Who has a sore ankle? Are there two kids squabbling for some reason. All of these factors can effect the outcome of a game, whether you know of them or not. If you know about such details, at least you may have a choice in how they affect the outcome.

The chance to measure your players' characteristics is in practice. Provide stress and competition every day. You will notice that some kids will make shots all day long until the pressure is on, then they miss. Is that bad? Not really. Other kids shoot their best under pressure and are prone to be careless when the game is not at a critical point. These facts are just good things to know when deciding who to put in the game.

From this point on, we'll assume you understand your own style and how you like the game to be played. You know your players well and can teach them what they need to know. With these basics out of the way, we can start to build a game plan and talk about strategy. 

Preparation

The first quarter horn has sounded and your team jogs to the huddle. Surprisingly, you are down 10 points against a team that you beat easily a couple weeks ago. What should you do? What should you say? If your team has a game plan (and a backup plan) and the players are willing and competent to make changes, then you have a chance to make strategic decisions that may turn the game around. The catch, though, is that strategy is limited to what the team is prepared to do. For that reason, emphasis must placed on what to teach before the games begin.

The basis for developing your game strategy is simply this: practice. You cannot hope to implement plays and mastermind defenses unless your kids have rehearsed them over and over. They must understand why plays work and why they fail. Your plays and defensive schemes are your tools. Every time you learn a new play or behavior, it becomes another tool to put in your toolbox. Practice is the opportunity to master the tools. Once the game starts, strategy is possible because you have tools and know how to use them. Teams that do not practice, or that waste their practice time, will not have the necessary tools and expertise. Strategy will be compromised accordingly.

A chapter on this site, Analogies, is devoted in part to the Art of War by Sun Tzu. After reading it, one realizes that most successful campaigns were won long before the armies met on the battlefield. Two precepts are very pertinent to preparing your basketball team for competition:

A warrior makes himself invulnerable then looks for weakness in his opponent

How does a basketball player become invulnerable? The keys are conditioning and skills. Conditioning is paramount. If one team tires before the other, height and talent are no longer factors. Teams that work the hardest at conditioning in will have a decided edge over teams who are out of shape. Players must strive to master their shooting, passing and ball-handling skills. Face it, if you cannot shoot, pass or dribble, what is the point of developing a game strategy? The players must think of themselves as warriors in this sense and try to minimize any weaknesses that may be exploited. Against good competition, lack of weakness is better than having a few strong areas. A good team will take advantage of your underdeveloped areas and hurt you.

In fact, defense is the art of exploiting weakness in your opponent. You must attack them where they are most vulnerable. If you have worked hard preparing your team in skills and conditioning, you already have a practiced eye from observing your own players. How does your opponent compare with your players? Do they tire quickly? Are they prone to turnovers? Do they shoot poorly? Modify your defense and game pace to make the game difficult for your adversary.

There are three essential reasons to practice: conditioning, individual and team skills. 

Conditioning - early in the season, you should spend a third of your practice time on conditioning. For running, include long distance endurance work, perhaps a mile or two. Add sprinting drills, but not too much. The players will enjoy fast break drills more and get an equivalent workout. Make sure the players understand why they are working so hard and help them envision a dream of how well they will play once they are in shape. Once the season matures, you can devote less time to conditioning and more to team skills. Your performance in games will indicate your conditioning level. For learning more about conditioning, visit this fitness page.

Individual Skills - Spend another third of your practice time on fundamental skills, even if you have an older team. Players can always improve on basic skills, no matter how advanced they are. Cover shooting, passing and ball-handling and break the skills down to the most elementary level. It is crucial that kids understand their mechanics to the point where they can make self-corrections and help each other.

Team Skills: Use a third of the practice time for team skills. There is a lot to cover. Most teams can play man to man and zone defenses, and may have a few trick defenses up their sleeve. Most teams can apply a full court press or two. Offensively, there are half court sets, fast break plays and special plays. All these take a lot of practice time to learn. A word of warning - do not get consumed with perfecting a complicated half court offense. Next to open scrimmaging where nothing is learned, it is the biggest time-waster you can get sucked into. Keep it simple and move on. If you play briskly and play tough defense, the half court offense will only supply 20% of your offensive production. In many games that is about 10 points. Nonetheless, you see many teams devote entire practice sessions to rehearsing a system that doesn't work well anyway. The players will be better served learning to play solid defense and learning to play offense on a simple reactive level using the basic offensive plays on this site.

Managing Resources

You do not need to be a basketball genius to help your team win games. It's a simple game, really. You do need to be able to manage resources effectively, however, there is no way around that. The first step in that direction is to understand what your resources are. A quick list includes:

  1. Players (individual abilities, conditioning, heart, state-of-mind)
  2. Team tools (what skills can your team perform? Plays, defenses, etc.)
  3. Time remaining
  4. Score differential
  5. Timeouts 
  6. Team Fouls
  7. Assistant's opinions and observations
  8. Your behavior, experience and instincts

These are the resources that you can manage or choose not to manage. Some have a different degree of importance throughout the game, but don't ignore any of them. 

Players

Who starts? It's an important question. Many players attach status to a starting role, so it's important to them, too. A coach wants to get the game off to the best beginning possible, so the inclination is to put the best five players on the floor. Let's talk about that. Does your league have a mandatory play rule? If it does, you'll be wise to balance you're A and B squads into evenly matched groups. If you don't, your team may excel while the stars are in, but later flounder when the second squad is playing. Balance the groups. Each group may have its own style, one fast and furious, the other deliberate, but that's OK as long as they work together well.

Can you really name your five best players? Typically, kids go up and down in their ability to play. Some improve quickly over the course of the season, while others tail off. Some are just plain streaky and unpredictable. That "five best" designation can get pretty blurry. Besides, you may need a different combination against one team than you do another.

One easy strategy is to balance your team and play everyone in the first half. It gives you time to see who is doing well and which combinations are successful. Then, in the second half, you can make more educated decisions regarding substitutions. If you balance your team this way, then it doesn't really matter who starts and you can remove the stigma of starter status altogether. If you are playing a weaker team, it's a great opportunity to let the 11th and 12th players start the game. If all the kids get to start a game now and then, it keeps everyone a lot happier.

What about substitution strategies? There are two extremes to making substitutions. One, you depend on 5-7 players to carry the team and they play 98% of the minutes. The remaining kids get garbage time when it is available. The other extreme is rotating kids in and out, platoon-style, every couple minutes. Each has its down side. The 5-7man rotation is simple and keeps the most experienced players on the floor, but its hurts you when the players tire, foul out or get injured. When the subs get in, they have extra pressure on them and have little experience to draw upon. The hockey style system provides a very fast game and really keeps the pressure on the other team. Everyone gets to contribute equally. But, after a while, players resent coming out of the game so soon and start complaining. 

The middle road is choosing a starting lineup that is both balanced and reasonably competent. Look for combinations of players that work well together in practice. Early in the season, note the kids that like to hang out together and play them together. They will usually have a natural chemistry. Later in the season, as the team begins to gel, split them up as best fits the needs of the team. Starting a less than optimum lineup has these advantages:

  1. You can get kids that don't play much in the game early to avoid a substitution puzzle later on.
  2. The least critical part of the game is the start. If things go wrong, you have most the game to fix it. Teams rarely start off playing their best anyway. It is a low risk opportunity to play less talented team members.
  3. A chance to start is a great motivator for all players. With this practice, you'll find your bench players are prone to work harder in practice and, in general, morale is higher.
  4. This is an easy way to make parents happier.
  5. Sometimes, a role player shines brighter than expected, but you'll never know it if he/she is hidden on the bench all game.
  6. With a balanced attack, your team can maintain a higher pace using frequent platoon-style substitutions.
  7. When everyone plays, it is easier to deal with losing a player to fouls or injury. Your team isn't locked in to rigid lineups. The roles are more interchangeable and better understood.

When should you pull a player out of the game? The coach should be able to recognize basic signals. Some coaches ask their player - and that is fine - but understand that most players will not admit to being tired if they think it will cost them game time. If a player is more concerned about the team than themselves, they'll ask to come out. But, generally, the desire to help the team directly is too strong for the player to be completely honest.

Here are common and compelling reasons to take a player out of the game:

  1. The player is tired. Signs a coach should watch for are unusual errors in ball handling, poor judgment, hands on the knees when activity stops, failure to sprint back on defense or follow on offensive breaks, and sloppy defensive play, usually resulting in reaching and blocking fouls. When you see these signs, take the player out. A tired star isn't going to play at star level anymore without some rest. A rested, average player can help the team much more. Besides, tired players may get hurt or become unnecessarily frustrated.
  2. Inordinate frustration is another reason to bench the player. An official's call or simple failure by the player can be upsetting enough to cause the player to become a liability. A few minutes of rest can work wonders.
  3. Poor sportsmanship should not be tolerated. It's a cancer that degrades the team over time. If a player starts trash talking or exhibits a loss of temper, bring in a substitute. Either case demonstrates that the player is out of control.
  4. Injury is an absolute reason to remove a player from activity. An injured athlete has the same drawbacks as a tired athlete, but there is high risk that the injury will be worsened and result in an extended loss of playing time. Unless you're coaching professional players with big money on the line, treat your players like people and prevent them from further injury. Players will give away indications of injury. Watch for limping, inability to turn sharply, holding a wrist or elbow and pained facial expressions.
  5. When players get rattled, take them out. Young players in particular are subject to sudden losses of confidence and concentration. If you take them out quickly, they can recover their composure and not suffer too much embarrassment. Leaving a rattled player in the game may result in a serious loss of confidence that may take a long time to heal.

It's generally best to let players follow their nature when assigning offensive and defensive roles. Some players are born to play an inside game even though they are not big. Some big players dislike the contact and the style of playing inside and develop very good outside skills. It is hard to fight this character trait, and maybe pointless. When the pressure is really on, the kids will revert to their nature. If you can style the team strategy and assignments around the player's talents and personal nature, not just their physical characteristics, then your team will quickly find its rhythm.

About balancing your team … it usually pays to have a mix of abilities on the floor, rather than have a group that is very strong in one facet of the game and weak in another. In competitive basketball, your weaknesses will really, really hurt you - more than your strengths can help you. So, seek balance when you choose your lineups. Its important that you do not have teammates competing with one another. For instance, don't put five scorers on the floor when you need to rally. Five players that can average 25 points a game will not combine for 125 point in a game. Instead they will compete for baskets and you'll score fewer points than normal. Instead, keep a good ball handler and assist specialist on the floor, and maybe a strong rebounder. Two or three scorers on the floor are plenty. Another tactic is to have your five best defenders on the floor and hope for easy transition baskets that do not require an offense.

Team Tools

Here is a summation of the basic tools you need to put in your team's toolbox. These are discussed in greater detail in separate articles throughout the web site. Use the topic menu in the upper right hand corner of this page.

  1. Conditioning - teams should be able to run hard for the entire game. This will likely require use of all players on the roster in every game, but it can be achieved. The point is that an average player in good condition will out-play great player in poor condition.
  2. Individual Skills - teams must be competent at decision-making, passing, ball-handling and shooting. They must also understand how to set and read screens. Defensively, they must understand where they are to position themselves within the context of the team defense, how to guard against shots, drives and passes, how to help their teammates and how to rebound.
  3. Team Skills - Offensively, the team should have a plan for creating shots in transition situations as well as the usual half court sets. There should be plans for facing man to man, zone and pressing defenses. Also, the team should have a mechanism for killing time through a controlled offense pattern or an outright stall. Defensively, a team should be able to play man to man and have a backup plan like a zone or a trapping defense. Also, every team should have a full court pressure option even if they are not good at using it.
  4. Special Tools - teams should have special plays to cover predictable recurring events. They cover situations seen in every game. Special tools should also include desperation plays for a last second shot - these need to be rehearsed, too. Use your practice sessions to master these tools and you will soon agree the time was well spent. Omit any of them and, before the season is over, you'll wish you hadn't.

Time Remaining

It is imperative that your team understands when the clock is their friend, and when it is not. It is amazing how many games are lost due to poor time management. Here are some prime examples:

Case 1. There are two minutes left in the game and your team is up by ten points. You have the ball out bounds. The other team needs to foul you to get possession of the ball, but they do not yet have enough fouls to force you to the line for the 1 and 1 free throw attempt. 

The smart play: You need to be careful that you do not play right into your opponent's hand and maximize their chances to win the game. Even if your team shoots well from the line, they will not shoot perfectly, and even if they make their free throws, a three point shot by your opponent out-scores two free throws. Why not manage the time so the other team's opportunity to win is eliminated? With good passing, it is possible to delay the intentional foul for several seconds - or longer. The more the other team chases the ball, the wearier they become. Properly played, you will not be going to the line until the other team is out of time to win.

The dumb play: Your players are confident and becoming more concerned about adding a few more points to their personal box score than wrapping up the win. You throw the ball in bounds safely, and your player hugs the basketball and awaits the foul. He gets it … quickly. Elapsed time, one second. Your team gets the ball on the sideline and in-bounds again. The same thing happens again, and again. In less than 5 seconds of game time, you are shooting free throws.

Case 2. You have the ball with 15 seconds to go in the quarter. Your team is running their offense. Player A has an opening and shoots a three.

The smart play: The time to take a quarter ending shot is with 5 seconds remaining. Five seconds will allow enough time for the ball to reach the basket and, if missed, there is adequate time for a second field goal attempt. If the other team recovers the rebound, they will be required to go the full distance and score within a second or two. The closer you are to the basket, the better shot it is. Player A above has compromised his team by taking a low percentage shot, shooting too soon and giving the opponent time to score, and by taking a shot that will likely have a long rebound that may help the opponent set up their shot more easily.

Exception: Don't pass up a sure thing. If the defense leaves an unguarded player under the basket, take the uncontested lay-up anytime it is available. 

The dumb play: Your team is up by two points and your player shoots a three (or forces a drive and turns the ball over) with ten seconds or more remaining. The opponent, who had little chance to win, now has an excellent opportunity to get a game-tying or game-winning shot.

Case 3. Coach B's team is down 8 points with about 2:30 remaining in the game. His team is running their pressure defense, just as they have all game. The score is 54-62. Finally, with score differential the same, he orders his team to foul with less than a minute left. 

The smart play: Pay attention to how long it takes to score points in this game. In this case, the teams have been scoring about two points per minute. That pace won't magically change at the end of the game. Sometimes a game will end in a flurry of baskets, but while memorable, it's rare. If your team is losing, change the game plan as drastically as necessary once you have run out of time to make up the difference in the score. In Case 3, the panic button should be pushed at 4 minutes left. If the game isn't changed significantly at that point, you will lose. So, start fouling or change to a different defense, or start shooting more threes more often. Do something different. If Coach B does not make a change at the 4 minute mark, his team will lose.

The dumb play: Do not wait until only a miracle can save you. Coach B has allowed his team one possible path to victory - the opponent misses all their shots and his team makes all their three point attempts. What are the odds of that happening?

Case 4 Coach C's team has played over their heads for the first three quarters. As the fourth quarter starts, they lead 48-38. Their opponent has played poorly, but now has responded to the situation and is looking very dangerous. They are a better team, typically. Coach C opens the quarter with a spread offense and a court man to man defense.

The smart play: Hmmm… good call. Coach C has little assurance the game pace will stay the same. There is a lot of time left for a rally. The slow down offense will take precious minutes off the clock. The man to man coverage will invite the opponent to dribble a lot, again, wasting time. The leading team should not trap! They have enough points to win. Do not take high risks to obtain the ball. Instead, force the time to go by as unproductively as possible for the losing team.

The dumb play: A team confronted with a slow down offense should take immediate action to counter it. Many teams will stop playing defense and just watch the offense play keep away. Even if there is several minutes left, do not be content to watch the remaining time (and your chance to win) slip away. Foul if necessary.

Score Differential

The score differential is a critical resource to manage. It influences how you substitute, defenses/offenses chosen and game pace. One coach might assert that the strategy should be to maximize the differential in your favor. However, that is a simplistic approach. The real goal is to win, not to maximize the point spread. The importance of the difference in score is directly compounded by the remaining game time. Obviously, a ten point margin in the first quarter has a different reaction than a ten point lead with a minute left in the contest. Following are some scenarios with suggestions on how manage the score differential.

First Quarter:

Up big early in the game - If you get a big lead early, like ten points in the first four minutes, do not get cocky. Kids will get over-confident in a hurry. Keep their intensity up. Treat your opponent with great respect, even when you're up early, because there is a lot of time for a comeback. Once the other team gains momentum, you can be in real trouble. On the other hand, you do have some breathing room and should take advantage of it. For the moment, momentum (we call him Uncle Mo), is on your bench. Don't be afraid to give your starters a quick rest. This is a chance to get in some kids early that may not see playing time otherwise. Do not change your defensive or offensive plans if they are working well.

Up a little or even early  in the game - This is still the safest time to make some subs. Its just as important to get your key subs "in the flow" as it is for your starters to get a quick rest. Again, no need to make game plan changes if it's working well.

Down a little early in the game - Don't panic if you're down a few baskets. Take an analytical view of the weakest part of your team's game. Perhaps the shooting is just off a bit or maybe there have been a couple bad breaks. You can trust that your offense will recover and the breaks will even out. If you have confidence in that, then you can sell the idea to the players. If a starter(s) is struggling, make an appropriate substitution and keep a positive attitude. Don't change the game plan yet.

Down big early in the game - You need to discern if you are already losing badly because you are out-matched or because you are playing horribly. Sometimes you can put your "best five" on the court and they will be absolutely dysfunctional. In such cases, bring in a whole new crew. Things can't get worse. Stick with the game plan a bit longer and see if the new crew can pull it off. If they can't, start the second quarter with a new look.

Now, if you are facing a team that is clearly superior and you are down a lot already, it's time to raise the stakes. Perhaps your team is playing fine, but they are getting out-classed, out-muscled and out-scored. In this case, have your five most effective players on the floor and drastically change the strategy. If it is obvious that you will lose playing a standard style game, then play a radical style. In a sense, what do you have to lose? Your pride? The only way to beat a superior team is to pursue higher risks that have a higher payoff. Of course, the odds are that you will lose even worse, but it's the only way you have a chance to win. 

The risks you want to consider are these:

  1. Attempt more field goals than your opponent. To do this you will need to increase their turnovers or get more offensive rebounds. The rebounds may be out of your control, but you can deploy highly intensive tactics such as full court pressure and trapping defenses.
  2. Shoot quickly and select a higher ratio of three point attempts. If your opponent is consistently hurting you inside for two points per possession, your only hope is to answer with threes. Its literally a "long-shot", but you must take the risk.
  3. Look for opportunities to take charges
  4. Slow the game down to a crawl. Using a spread type offense, you can greatly decrease the number of shots by your opponent. This strategy is neither popular nor fun, but it can work. It may take the other team completely out of their rhythm, frustrate them and cause them to make risky choices just to get possession of the ball. If you can take advantage of their poor judgement, you can gradually narrow the gap. The irony is that if they have a big lead, they literally need to do nothing to win. Chances are, though, they won't have the temperament to let the game slow down so much.

The risks to avoid are these:

  1. Do not lunge for steals and abdicate defensive position. Instead, take calculated attempts to come from behind pass receivers and deflect the ball. Deflections usually favor the defense.
  2. Do not steal off the dribble. Instead, intercept passes. If your team is trapping properly, there should be ample opportunity to steal passes.
  3. Do not foul the ball handler. Such fouls only put the opponent on the free throw line. A steal off the dribble leading to a lay-in is great, but the odds are against you (unless you have an obvious talent mismatch, but if that is the case, why is your team behind big early in the game?)
  4. Do not foul shooters. This is really dumb. Successful blocked shots are usually retained by the offensive, so nothing is gained. Fouled shooters get two or three free throws and your players are eventually disqualified. You cannot sustain a rally by blocking shots.

Halftime:

Up big at the half - Keep your kids focused on their objectives. The most common story in youth basketball is the team that overcomes a big first half deficit and wins the game. Your team must play just as hard in the second half. Do not allow our team to abandon discipline just because they are ahead. If players begin taking foolish shots, for example, take them out of the game. Big leads are breeding grounds for bad habits. Teams get in the practice of going soft in the second half will stumble when they meet a stronger opponent.

However, with a big lead at this point you have options. You can be more generous with substitutions. In fact, your second string may be chomping at the bit to have their turn, which really maintains the team intensity level.

Even at the half - It looks like you have a good ball game on your hands. Enjoy it. Evaluate individual player performance. Hopefully, everyone has gotten in the game for at least a few minutes. You may alter your "best five" if it seems someone is hot or a starter is playing below par. Beware of a different strategy from your opponent to start the second half. They may try to shake you up, even if the score is close. Then again, you can do the same if you have another defensive look or a play they haven't seen. The alternative is to save your "ace" up your sleeve and use it at the end of the game.

Down big at the half - Chance are remote that you will win the game if you trail 20 or more at halftime. Maybe your players have a big comeback in them. If you have tried the high-risk options mentioned above to no avail, you need to decide to continue the high risk game, try to contain the score, or employ another radical strategy. Lastly, you can accept the defeat and manage the playing time to satisfy your players. Don't be overly-encouraging to your players. They know they are losing badly and are probably embarrassed, so don't tell them they are doing great. They're not. The best you may be able to salvage is to work on facets of your game that need work and try to benefit from the game experience.

Remember that you are not required to go into the locker room at half time. It's perfectly OK to use the floor and have a team practice for the minutes available to your team. If the team can learn better on the floor than they can while staring at some chalkboard, stay out on the court.

Third Quarter:

It is my belief that most youth games are decided in the third quarter. Young teams that lead at this point are so often complacent and vulnerable to a sudden change initiated by the opponent. Another weakness is when a team has played very well in the first half, then decides to be conservative and protect their lead for the rest of the game. It's too much time. Run with the strategy that brought you the lead in the first place. A politically incorrect term for the third period is "kill quarter". The leading team can put the game away for good if they retain their intensity.

Fourth Quarter:

Up Big in the fourth - If you have been blessed with a sizeable lead and the game outcome is no longer in doubt, manage your score accordingly. There is no uglier example in basketball than coaches who deliberately run up the score against a much weaker team. You may hear all manners of excuses. "It's the only way we play" or "I can't tell my kids to play badly". Have enough respect for the other team's players as people to manage your score. There are several ways to mitigate a blowout without losing control or playing soft. A more deliberate offense maybe used. Stop scoring off fast breaks. Practice offensive sets that need work. Don't employ a full court press when you're up by 20-25 points or more. To do so is rude, even cruel. Are you trying to force less experienced players out of the sport? Another thing … what goes around, comes around. It really does. Think about that.

Even in the fourth - This is the best experience in the sport, a tight game coming to a close. This is where you will realize your payoff if you have managed your resources wisely. You should have plenty of tools at your disposal, rested players, fouls to give, a couple timeouts left. If the game comes down to a last second shot, you should be ready if you have practiced the end game desperation plays. 

Down big in the fourth - When you are down a bunch in the last quarter, its time to show some class. Don't whine at the refs. It really looks bad at this point. Make sure everyone gets in to play. Try to run your game plan as best you can. Perhaps there is some practice value in the experience. Hopefully the opposing coach is doing the same. 

Watch your player's actions closely. Some kids, when frustrated, will tend to take cheap shots or foul excessively. Take them out if that's the case. When the game is over, thank the scorekeepers and congratulate the winners, then get off the floor. Give your kids an opportunity to vent if they need to, but in the privacy of the locker room. Do not let them blame the referees. That's just an excuse. When they are ready to listen, review the game. Point out the things that went well (there must be something) and list some points that need to be covered in the next practice so the players can be thinking ahead. It helps them to know that the coach is addressing specific weaknesses and offers some sense of hope that the next game will be better.

Time Outs

Time outs are the most limited resource in the game. Use them wisely. Some leagues allow as few as one or two per half. In such situations, they are more valuable than possessions. Players who call time out while saving a ball from going out of bounds are not really making a beneficial choice (unless that particular possession is critical). So, educate your team beforehand on this circumstance.

Generally, it is a really good idea to save one time out for the very end of the game. You probably won't need it, but if you do, you will need it very badly. On the other hand, if the game starts off horribly, you may need to use all your timeouts early. The rationale is that if you can't fix the problem at hand, the outcome of the game won't be in question so there is no point for saving a time out for the last minute.

One thing to remember is that it's very difficult to teach effectively during a timeout. Use the time to discuss topics the team already understands and has practiced. That way you are reminding them, not introducing new material.

Here are some reasons to call time out:

  1. The team is in confused and in disarray.
  2. The team is tired.
  3. The following play/defensive change is very important and must be discussed
  4. The team is not following directions or the game plan.
  5. The team doesn't appear properly motivated.
  6. You need to make a point with the referee
  7. The clock or score book needs correction. If you have a good case, you may not be charged with a timeout.
  8. You want to make an important substitution.

You need to trust your instincts as to when to call a time out. Timing is everything. Try to use them to have the greatest benefit possible for your team. If you don't need one, don't call one. There's nothing wrong with winning a game and not using any time outs. However, judicious use of time outs is one of the coach's important responsibilities.

Team Fouls

Personal fouls are a very important team resource. In a sense, you get 6 per half with no penalty whatsoever, if they were not committed upon a shooter. Therefore, fouls can be used to stop the clock, stop the play action or even stop the other team from doing what they want to do for a moment. 

Cautionary Note! Intentional fouling is a skill that should be taught. Don't tell your players to go out and hack somebody. An injury could occur and the coach could be liable under certain conditions. In practice, the coach can be the "crash test dummy" to minimize chance of injury to the players. Have them foul you in different circumstances. Players should always be attempting to get the ball. Who knows, they may inadvertently knock the ball loose with no foul called at all. However, if they slap, grab or tackle somebody they may get a technical for their trouble. Do not foul from behind the targeted player. Do not use feet, knees, elbows or heads to make contact. There is no excuse for dirty basketball and it just isn't necessary.

Once the seventh team foul occurs in a half, though, the penalties can mount in a hurry. The opponent gets a 1:1 free throw opportunity (if they make the first, they get a second); on the tenth foul, they get two shots. 

In younger leagues, or against certain opponents, few free throws are made. Generally, teams shoot a little over 50%, and not much over that. Some teams may excel at free throws, and it pays to know who they are! The older teams (high school varsity and up) may likely average 65% or a little more. These percentages are important. Once you are in the bonus situation, each foul will cost you .5 points per shot (the value of the made free throw x the odds of it going in). So, once your opponent is in the single bonus, a foul costs you .75 (.5 for the first shot and .25 for the second shot - remember only half of the second shots will be awarded and only half of those made). Once your opponent is in double bonus, however, the value per foul rises to 1 full point because both shots are taken at a 50% probability of going in.

If you are in a situation where you need to foul to get possession, you need to plan for the opponent getting their point per foul and budget your time accordingly. If you are down 8 points, you'll need at least 8 possessions to catch up. And, that is only true if you score a basket every time you get the ball. If you score at your normal efficiency (50% on field goals and 33% on three point attempts) then you're simply matching the one point per possession your opponent is making when you foul. There's no way around it - rallies are based on scary math.

At the end of the game when players are tired, the number of fouls usually increases. Players who have squandered fouls early in the game trying to swat shots or make steals will be in trouble. Teams that persist in fouling too much will find that their opponents are scoring more points from the line in the second half than they are from the floor. This is very common! Players must be taught the value of the fouls. Even the fouls made in the first minute have an impact on the game. The earlier a team gains bonus status, the more they will score. The second penalty, obviously, is that players foul out just when you need them the most.

Use your fouls carefully. Don't waste them on foolish, reckless gambles. And by all means, do not waste them on blocking shots. It's the worst gamble in the game and should be reserved for desperate circumstances. See the article on shot blocking.

Ideally, when the game draws to a close, you'll have six fouls against your team, none of them a shooting foul, That way, if you need to foul to force the other team to shoot, you can accomplish that quickly. On the other hand, you haven't given away any points from the charity stripe.

Your Assistant's Opinions and Observations

Do not overlook this essential team tool! Coaching basketball can be a very emotional experience. It may really help to have a cooler head close by. Basketball is also fast and furious. Did you really see all that happened? If you believe you did, watch a video tape of your last game. You'll see a hundred things you missed. A good assistant will pick up on some of the action you don't see. You can direct your assistant to watch for certain aspects. Further, remember that your assistant coach knows the players, too, and all the tools in your toolbox. Do not become so personally involved in "your" team that you neglect the insights of your staff. They care, too. And in a tight contest, every good idea is needed. Check out the Assistant Coaching article on this site.

Your own instincts, behavior and experience

Sometimes you need to listen to that inner voice. Sometimes you need to play a hunch. Human beings are very complex and not measured perfectly by shot chart percentages. If you have a strong feeling about a player or a play to use, test your instincts. Instincts are based on all that experience buried inside you. 

Now, playing hunches can be taken too far. Making sound choices based on facts will hold you in good stead most of the time, and especially against teams that rely solely on emotion. All I am suggesting is that you listen to your inner voice once in a while.

Your personal behavior during the game can have a tremendous effect on the team and the fans as well. If your team is frustrated, rattled or emotionally charged, the coach should appear calm and in control, even if tied up in knots on the inside. That's part of leadership. If the team is sluggish, then its time for the coach to display enthusiasm and intensity. Enthusiasm is contagious and it can start with the coach. The coach can subtly quiet the crowd if the ref makes a controversial call. How? By simply not reacting. If the coach doesn't seem to think its a big deal, maybe the fans won't either.

After you have been coaching awhile, you'll notice you see certain things again and again. That's a tool. If something has happened before, even years ago, it will happen again if the conditions are the same. Basketball hasn't changed so much and people are the same wherever you go. So, trust your experience. It's valuable and unique to you.

Predictable, Recurring Events

If the team prepares to gain an advantage every time one of these predictable, recurring events takes place, a considerable margin can build up over the course of the game. Each of these situations requires extra practice time above and beyond the accumulation of basic skills. However, the benefits are significant if these events can become resources instead of mere moments in the game.

Here are some situations that happen every game, baseline out-of-bounds, tip-off, sideline out-of-bounds, free throws and end game scenarios.

BLOB Baseline Out-of-Bounds

The event that offers the greatest payoff is in-bounding the ball under your own basket. Why not master that situation? You know it will happen, so it makes sense to prepare for the eventuality. Teams should have a few well-rehearsed plays for baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) that are designed to score. It isn't unusual to get five chances to score this way. That equates to about 10 points a game, or as much as you'll likely score from your half court offense. BLOB plays consume about 10 seconds of game time yet provide 20% of your points. Learn these plays well! Do NOT settle for merely getting the ball in play. Get a good shot. There are several BLOB plays to view on this site.

Tip-Off Plays

If you have a height advantage, or a talented leaper, you may be able to consistently get the game off to good start with a quick basket. Check out the tip-off play on this site. If your team is smaller, you may still run a gambit to steal the ball. Or, you can concede the tip and set up in a pressing defense. Admittedly, there may be but one tip-off per game, but if you can get a basket out if it, why not work in this tool?

SLOB Sideline Out-of-Bounds

A common situation is a sideline out-of-bounds (SLOB) after a time out or after an out-of-bounds call. These are more complicated as the defense is established. There are a couple plays offered here to try. The SLOB plays are the most common tool needed in a last shot situation following a timeout. It pays to practice one or two of these plays. Sometimes, on TV, you see a coach furiously scribbling a play for the last shot. A good team has probably practiced that strategy many times. Good coaches don't "wing-it" in these situations. Coaching strategy is much more than diagramming a last second play. In fact, if you are in the position of diagramming an unrehearsed, desperation play, then chances are the game tape will show a string of strategic decision-making errors that led to the close finish.

Free Throw Options

Free throws aren't as predictable as the out of bounds situations because one doesn't know if the shot will be made or where it will go if it is missed. However, it is a convenient break in the action and the players arrange themselves in a uniform fashion. Here are a couple options that you can practice:

OPTION 1 If your opponent is shooting, plan to fast break on the rebound (or made basket). Put two good rebounders close to the basket and designate one player to box out the shooter. The other two players can position themselves near mid-court, but on opposite sides of the floor. If the shot is made, have the rebounder on the right side of the key yank the ball out of the net, step out of bounds and fire it to the mid-court player on the right side. The mid-court player on the left side should break down court to finish the play with a basket. Now, if your primary rebounder is left-handed, put him/her on the left side of the key and make the inbound pass to the mid-court player on the left side. This is a much faster, more natural line of attack for a left hander.

OPTION 2 If you are shooting, declare the shooter as the point man on the press. The two rebounders are assigned the furthest two positions back. Once the basket is made, or if the opponent gets the rebound, they must hustle back to their spots. The other two players are already in place at the front of the press (stay behind the top of the key as the shot is made!). This option gives you a quick press setup.

OPTION 3 If you are shooting, you are not required to place rebounders on the key. So, have your shooter as the point, and have everyone else take their spots for the press while the shots are taken. This is a decent strategy for a small team that isn't likely to grab an offensive rebound anyway.

End Game Plays

Sometimes, whether the team has played brilliantly or horrendously, the game comes down to a final shot. The dramatic end game scenario gives basketball a special allure. It's a reason shot clocks are popular, they repeatedly emulate the last second, game deciding shot we all hope to see. Even though your team may only have a few games that come down to the wire, having practiced the end game scenario may make a huge difference in your chances to win them. In fact, there are multiple advantages to practicing end game scenarios. First, if your team has rehearsed a couple buzzer beater plays, the odds of you getting a decent shot are much higher. Plays diagrammed at the last second don't work. Second, your team benefits defensively from such practice. Chances are pretty good the other team will be taking that last second shot, not you. How will you defend it? Third, a crucial factor under the pressure of a last second play is poise. Most last second plays fizzle into a turnover. But, if your team can keep their collective head, you just might survive. There are two last second, full court desperation plays diagrammed on this site.

Basic Winning Strategies

Read related articles - Analogies, Basic Advantages, Risk Management, managing subs, pressing

Instead of looking at basketball strategy as a list of responses … if this happens, then do that … take a higher view of the game. The result of a game is really determined by a long series of inter-related actions and reactions by several people. It's too complicated to try and manage all of those separate events. Understand where your basic advantages lie and know that over time, if you play where you are strong, most of those events will be decided in your favor. If you win most of these little battles, you'll win the game, too. Coaches who always try to counter the other team's every move end up being manipulated. They are always behind, trying to catch up. You can't win consistently using a reactionary approach. 

Here are some tried and true high level strategies that will help your team:

Match the game tempo to your team. Too many teams that have a speed or conditioning advantage are content to play slower than they should. It is easier to coast. People are all conservationists when it comes to managing their own personal energy. But, if you want to win, you need to press your advantage. By simply pushing the pace of the game, a faster team can create enough breaks to change the outcome of a game. Make the opponent play much faster than they want. It doesn't matter if your players are tired. The other team will be worse off. Conversely, if you have the slower group, try to keep your players from panicking or rushing. Maintain deliberation and control. If you can hobble a running team and slow them down, you may take away the only effective aspect of their game.

Control the middle of the floor. This is a simple concept that pays big dividends. Offensively, you hope to own the middle of the floor. From the center you can attack from any direction. If under pressure, you can escape in any direction. You have many options and are relatively unpredictable. Defensively, you strive to keep the ball to the outside. Certain areas of floor limit offensive choices - corners, baseline, sideline, half-court line. Once the ball is in these areas, the offensive options are reduced and become predictable. Predictability is vulnerability. In a sense, the game is a struggle to between two forces; one, a penetrative force invading the area where shooting is optimum, and two, a repelling force that pushes the ball away from the basket where shooting is difficult and the likelihood of turnovers is higher.

From the Art of War, "…. So it is that good warriors take their stand on ground where they cannot lose, and do not overlook conditions that make an opponent prone to defeat. "

Possession is power. Remember, the defense doesn't score points. It can only obtain the ball. Then, you are on offense. You must have the ball to score. So, if you are ahead, what is your best defense? Your offense is the best defense. If you have the ball, the opponent cannot score. The players must understand this sense of power, especially in the end game. 

If you are being pressed, remember that possession is power. The defense doesn't have any power. They can only hope to instill the offense with a sense of extreme urgency and anxiety. If the offense doesn't buy in to it, then there is no press. The offense can (and should) manipulate the defense. The defense must react to what the offense does with the ball. They have no choice. The defense can therefore be moved, either by ball movement or the anticipation of ball movement (fake passes and jab steps). 

The power of possession is only weakened by predictability. Once the defense knows your next move, the possession will be short-lived.

Know thyself. Keep statistics. What is your expected success of making free throws? How well do you shoot three point shots? How many shots are you getting compared to your opponent? How many scoring opportunities are you losing to turnovers? How can you measure if your team is improving? If you do not know your history, you are condemned to repeat it. Statistics will help your locate and strengthen your weak areas. They will also tell you where to emphasize your resources during the game.

Keep your game plan simple. Don't waste precious practice time on complicated processes. Instead, perfect the simple things. Pay attention to details. A well executed pick and roll play needs but a few basic skills and is far more effective than a convoluted offensive pattern with dozens of sloppily performed elements. Different opponents have different weaknesses, so develop a few different team tools, just don't overdo the options. Whatever you do, understand and do well.

Usually, an opponent needs to be tested to determine strengths and weaknesses. If you have not had an opportunity to scout the other team beforehand and do not observe any glaring problems, then start the game with your strongest offense. When things don't work out well, though, you need to make changes. This is the time that tests your preparation. What will you change to? Some teams are like a one-trick pony. They do one thing and do it well. But, if that one trick doesn't work … ? 

You do not need a different offense for every defense thrown at you, nor do you need a dozen defenses to confuse your opponent. You just need 2-3 different looks that the team can perform well. Having several defenses, for instance, that the team does not implement with proficiency, merely maximizes the number of weakness your opponent can exploit.

Use your whole team to build momentum. Don't depend on a favored few (or one) to save the day. Try to get the entire team dedicated to build a series of positive events, small as they may be. Maybe all you can achieve at first is an in-bounds pass, a screen and another pass to mid-court. Fine. That's a series of three successful events. Try for four. The point is to build momentum. Once momentum is created, it is very difficult to stop.

From the Art of War, "Good warriors seek effectiveness in battle from the force of momentum, not from individual people…"

The trick is to start small and not get discouraged. The longer the series of successful events, the more excited the kids should become. The coach can play a big role in encouraging momentum.

Pay attention to trends and significant events. Following are some signs that should signal a change in strategy or a prompt a time out.

Things to watch out for:

Other things a coach should keep an eye on:

Manage your risk taking according to the score and remaining time

As long as you believe you have a chance to win, you should do what is necessary to win. That is the objective of the game. When your team is out-classed or short on time to catch up, you must change the plan and take higher risks as needed to win. Chances are you will still lose and likely by more points than necessary. But, at least you lost trying to win. Its amazing to watch some teams plod along at the same old pace, essentially wasting the remaining minutes. When times are desperate, take desperate measures. Even if your full court press is horrible, use it. If nothing else, you'll a have chance to improve it. Can't shoot threes? There may be times when you must if it is the only way you can win. 

Once you know there is no possible way to out-score the opponent, or you know there is no way your opponent will catch you, then its time to manage the score. This is discussed in the score differential section above. Otherwise, do not be embarrassed to pull out all the stops when you need to. That's the way miracle wins are achieved - by daring to win.

I hope there were some helpful sections in this basic basketball strategy guide. If it did not fully meet your needs, you are welcome to email the author, Steve Jordan, at sjordan@alaskalife.net and present questions, comments or suggestions.